Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Unnecessarily Long Review: The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh

42265183This is nothing like Twilight: the similarities are superficial at best, and a trope in common does not a similar book make.

The Beautiful is a story about desire and power (and desire for power) from the point of view of a young woman. That’s the main reason I don’t want to say it’s similar to the vampire story that basically preaches abstinence in your face. They share a few tropes and plot devices; apart from that, I really don’t see the similarities.

Now that I got that out of the way, due to the borderline ridiculous length of this review I want to give you a disclaimer: this post should have probably been titled “here’s what happens when Acqua takes fiction way too personally”; as this book hit far deeper than a vampire book has any right to, this got both long and personal and not necessarily as coherent as usual.


On the Portrayal of Sexual Assault and Self-Loathing

This is the story of Celine, a girl who left everything she knew from her life in France and went to live in New Orleans after a deeply traumatic event. There, she will get more and more involved in the murderous paranormal underbelly of the city.

So, The Beautiful is the most culturally Catholic book I’ve ever read, and unexpectedly so. Celine is French and biracial Korean, and was raised in what’s implied to be a (by today’s standards) strict Catholic environment. I’ve never seen a character with this specific kind of background before, especially not in an American fantasy book.

And did it make for some unpleasant flashbacks.
From age 3 to age 13, I attended an Italian Catholic school led by sisters; all of them were both old and what one could call old-school Catholics. The environment I was immersed in for most of my childhood isn’t too different from Celine’s own background, and I’m familiar with the ways it can be toxic.

Which brings me to the point: this book has the best portrayal of Catholic self-loathing I’ve ever seen.
Celine is a wild, carefree person. She has always craved danger and on some level power; what happened to her and brought her to New Orleans only forced her to face that fact, and now she is disgusted by herself.
Celine was sexually assaulted by a man, and she killed him in self-defense. She doesn’t feel regret about that, the book is pretty clear about it, and she states (quote) that:

“Celine still wasn’t sorry for what she had done.”

What horrifies her is the fact that she liked it. That she liked wielding power, that she didn’t feel remorse at all, for killing – which, according to Catholicism, is a mortal sin. In the eyes of the Catholic church, especially of the Catholic church of her time who would no doubt blame her for what happened instead of seeing it rightfully as (acceptable by Catholics) self-defense, Celine has just done something evil, that she could atone in only some specific way I don’t remember because I didn’t pay that much attention during the mandatory religion class, being an atheist. But you can’t atone without regret, which she doesn’t feel. Of course she feels bad about not feeling it, even though we know she did nothing wrong.

We know, and if one understands what she’s going through, they also should understand why she has deeply mixed feelings about what happened. I disagree with the comments that say “this book tells sexual assault victims they shouldn’t fight back” – which Celine doesn’t even think, as she does the very Catholic thing of feeling bad about her own emotions instead. And getting out of this self-hating mindset is the heart of her character arc!

“Sin isn’t as black and white as they’d like us to believe.”

A character arc that is really meaningful and close to me.
One might think this is a book that wants to talk about “the mindset of people at the time”, but I want people to know that is still really relevant today.

I’m an atheist and a lesbian. I’ve always known about the first but not about the second. How long did it take me to be somewhat comfortable with that after being raised in this kind of deeply homophobic religious environment – if I start counting from the moment I knew and understood that there was nothing wrong with being gay?
Three years, and I don’t even believe in sin. You internalize that sort of thing. If I internalized homophobia on a deep level, Celine internalized that women should make themselves small, be humble, not crave power and feel anything remotely positive in being able to best their attackers. She knows she did the right thing, she knows defending herself was the right thing, but what you know doesn’t matter. She hates herself and has to work through it. Which she does, and she’ll probably continue to do in the following books.


Power: who has it, who craves it

There’s something wonderful about seeing marginalized people be involved in a historical narrative that is specifically about power. Reading about La Cour des Lions, an underground supernatural society composed mostly by people of color and queer people, is the best kind of escapism. The kind that asks, what if the ones that white American society always tried to make powerless weren’t powerless at all, in more than one way? That’s giving power to those who usually don’t get it in fantasy – much less historical fantasy – books, which is why I love that this wasn’t contemporary.

Reading about women who crave power is something I’ve always loved and yet rarely find outside villain origin stories. Yes, Celine is somewhat self-centered. The narrative doesn’t praise nor tear her down for that, and I appreciated that so much. The book even lets her make the classic clueless straight girl faux pas (“but I’m not into you” and the like) when the lesbian side character Odette comes out to her, and the book calls her out for it! I loved that scene. Celine is flawed and – in her words – reckless, incomplete and inappropriate, and I love her deeply.

Often, women are asked to choose between love and ambition; here, power is a central theme of the romance as well, which is the right thread to follow in a story involving vampires, if you ask me. Both potential love interests have power over Celine, and Celine is attracted to them both in spite and because of that, but most of all, she wants power over them. The idea that their attraction to her is one of their weaknesses is probably the most attractive thing about the whole tangle to her.

And while both relationships are unbalanced, the ways the two love interests approach the situation are very different and tied to the power/agency theme, which is why the romance being a hinted-at love triangle makes sense (fight me) even though you know who she’ll very likely choose:
🌹 the mysterious Sébastien Saint Germain tries to keep the main character at a distance because danger (probably the most Twilight-y thing), but he is stunned by how daring and fearless Celine can be.
🌹 Michael Grimaldi is also surprised by Celine, but he wants her to tone herself down. He just wants to keep Celine safe from this horrible supernatural world, after all. (Did I somehow manage to omit that people are being murdered? Yes I did)
[by the way, I find an all-PoC love triangle – both the love interests are biracial, Bastien is of Taíno descent and Michael is Italian and Black – inherently not cliché]

I can’t wait to see this play out, and not because I don’t know the way this will likely play out. After all, the point of a romance and thematic arc isn’t surprising the reader.


Respect and Italian Representation

I’ve read more than a dozen American books that tried to incorporate Italian words into the text, especially in the form of an Italian-American character using both languages on the page.
Until The Beautiful, every single one of them got something wrong, because authors just don’t care enough to have someone who speaks the language check what they’re doing.

This book has a delightful scene in which a very realistic and stern Italian grandmother brings the main character she has never met before Italian food, and speaks both English and Italian on the page. There’s not one word wrong or out of place.

[Historical accuracy aside: as this book is set in 1872, an Italian character probably wouldn’t be speaking Italian at all, but another romance language or dialect – in this case, Sicilian, I think – but finding resources and people who are able to translate less-known languages spoken in Italy for you when you don’t even speak Italian is… well, it’s not reasonable to expect that from an English author, so I’m fine with this choice. I can barely write in my own region’s original language with a dictionary and I live here.]

As far as I know, the author doesn’t speak Italian, and she mentions asking for help to someone in the acknowledgments. The fact that she cared enough to do that – when most American authors don’t – meant a lot to me and made me see the whole book in a better, less nitpick-y way.


Because yes, I do have complaints

I had mixed feelings about the writing. The atmosphere is undeniably beautiful, the descriptions vivid and detailed, enough that they will feel like too much to those who don’t specifically like slow reads that are meant to be savored (yes this took me more than a week no I’m not annoyed about that).
However, sometimes there were some weird turns of phrase. Characters who are walking as if they were moving through water to mean that they’re graceful (how does that look like? Are they swimming? Doesn’t feel graceful), for example; and while I understand that self-identifying as a monster is in fact one of the coping mechanisms typical of people who loathe themselves, reading about the movement of Celine’s “dark creature” only made me think of tapeworms.
And were all those Shakespeare quotes necessary?

I also recommend going into this with appropriate expectations for a vampire romance, which means: The Beautiful is as cheesy as one would expect. From the oh-so-forbidden lust we mostly won’t call lust because this is YA (cue weird metaphors) to the pages-long villain monologue, everything about this book is overdramatic. But I mean, if you’re going to do sexy vampires, being understated doesn’t really make sense either.

And now, to the biggest complaint: the unnecessary PoVs. For most of the book, apart from Celine’s narration, you also read from the villain’s PoV – except you don’t know who the villain is or their motivations or anything that would make their chapters interesting; you only get vague and ominous word vomit about tearing enemies down. Those chapters were so boring and didn’t actually add anything, not even suspense.
Also, the worldbuilding revolving around the paranormal creatures? Messy and underdeveloped. I get that it wasn’t the point and Celine couldn’t know anything anyway, but I hope the next book clears it up, because I definitely will be reading it.

My rating: ★★★★½


Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Missing, Presumed Dead by Emma Berquist

40221949Now I have feelings, book, how dare you.

I love ghost stories. It’s not so much about wanting to believe in the paranormal or wanting to talk about what is after death; that’s not what draws me in. It’s that haunting stories are stories about isolation. There’s something inherently detached from reality in this kind of paranormal. They are stories about the word’s hidden pockets, the in-between spaces, for the lonely and the lost. They are about the weight isolation has on a person, and seeing Lexi’s journey with that, seeing how what the story does with this theme, meant so much to me.

Lexi is a bitter and deeply pessimistic person. The first impression I had of this story, before I really got to know her and her past, was that it really was a downer. And it’s not. I’m not saying this just because there is humor – dark and sarcastic, often, but it is funny – but because whether something ends up being depressing is about what a story does with its premise, and this might be dark, but it’s all but hopeless.
And, after all, how could Lexi not be the way she is? She can’t touch people without seeing the time and the cause of their deaths, and she avoids (and is avoided by) people for that reason. Stories often understate how much loneliness can affect a person. What matters is that she is not static in this, and the way the book ends up dealing with all of this was both original and right for the story. (Ghost therapy? Ghost therapy.)
By the way, giving your haunted and isolated main character a power that can double as a metaphor for significant touch aversion, and showing how people often don’t respect that kind of boundary, which only reinforces something that already is really isolating to deal with: great and painful content.

This is a story about an angry, isolated girl who can see death and the dead as she meets an angry, vengeful ghost of a murdered teenage girl (Jane), and their relationship was one of my favorite aspects of the book. In equal parts tender and raw, it’s messy and tangled and somewhat unbalanced, and the main character absolutely do say terrible things to each other, think terrible things about each other, harm each other. And yet. There is a conversation in which Lexi says that she’s not sure they’re going to work, and she thinks that trying and not making it could only hurt her more, but here’s the thing: I can see it working, and in the end, so does she. Because they finally talk about their feelings, and not wanting to deal with them was a big part of why their early interactions were toxic (so much that Lexi at one point thinks, paraphrasing, “I wish Jane would always be angry and vengeful instead of trying to make me think about my feelings”). The elephant-in-the-review I still haven’t talked about, which clearly had a strong negative impact on their relationship while at the same time bringing them together, also had a resolution.

About the relationship: (spoiler-y)

it’s so interesting to see a story about isolation through hauntings have this kind of resolution. Lexi finds friends and a girlfriend in the ghosts around her; they’re not the ones isolating her anymore, they’re a part of her world and just as human and the relationships Lexi ends up forging with them have the same value to her. She can’t be around living people the way everyone does – even though she does find some living friends as well and slowly accepts that they are in fact friends – and so she finds her people mostly among the dead.

But let’s talk about the aforementioned elephant, the reason I haven’t given this f/f ghost story about all the themes I love, following two angry bi girls I also loved, a full five stars. And that elephant is the murder mystery, the thing this book wants you to deceive it is. It’s not, really, even though the mystery drives a significant part of the tension. Get into this if you’re interested in an introspective story about isolation; as a murder mystery, it’s underwhelming. I did fall for one of the things the book threw at me, which I did appreciate, but this is the kind of book that doesn’t give you enough elements to solve the mystery along with the characters, and that’s always disappointing. Also, introducing this many (often irrelevant) male characters in the first chapters of a story meant that I kept confusing them, so that didn’t help either.

Overall, this was a really compelling paranormal read and I really recommend it to everyone who needs more queer ghost stories in their lives.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Short, Gay Urban Fantasy Books

Today, I’m reviewing a few short novels and stories I read lately, and they all happen to be gay urban fantasy, because I’m predictable.

46284528._sy475_Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall is one of the most trope-y and unnecessarily overdramatic things I have ever read, and I was living for it.
I mean, it is a story about Kate, a paranormal investigator, as she tries to solve the murder of a werewolf, falls for a vampire prince (don’t let the name fool you, Julian is a vampire woman), while also trying not to anger various other paranormal creatures.
Everyone in this book is a combination of queer, ridiculous, and horny, often all three, and… I didn’t know how much I needed an f/f vampire romance until I read this book. I loved how these tired and often ugly tropes felt a lot less unbearable and even interesting when one makes them gay and doesn’t expect the reader to take everything seriously. For example, drama with ex-girlfriends from the point of view of a lesbian is a lot more interesting than the drama with exes in straight books. I loved all of it.

“My girlfriend, my ex-girlfriend, my girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend, and my new assistant were all staring at me.”

When I say that this is tropey, I mean that this does read a little like fanfiction, also because so many parts of it are obviously references to more well-known urban fantasy series, and that’s part of the fun. The minor character who is very clearly an Edward Cullen reference was hilarious, and I mean, after years of being told by the very straight urban fantasy genre that I needed to take books like Twilight and its sparkly vampires or the Fever series and the walking personification of toxic masculinity that was its love interest seriously, this is so refreshing. Nothing about this book demands that! And urban fantasy works so much better this way.

On the negatives, I will say that while the sex scenes aren’t bad, they could have used less weird metaphors and descriptions (it could have been part of the parody aspect, but it usually wasn’t over-the-top enough to be funny, so maybe it wasn’t?) and that the pacing felt a bit wobbly, but overall, but I haven’t laughed this much while reading a book in months, so I’m definitely not here to complain. It’s short, it’s fun, it’s exactly what it needs to be.

My rating: ★★★★

26300164._sy475_This month I also read Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship by Aliette de Bodard, a short story set in the world of The House of Shattered Wings.

This is a really cute f/f romance between two fallen angels! It can be read independently from the novels, but it does work better if you know a little about the characters and world already. That way, for example, you can understand the full implications of two fallen angels infiltrating an enemy House (they end up kissing there. of course they end up kissing there.)

This mostly reminded me that I can’t wait to read The House of Sundering Flames and get more of Emmanuelle’s PoV, and also it confirmed that I do really like Selene, when I’m not reading about her as the Head of the House. She is arrogant and cold, but there’s more to her than that, and her and bookish, quieter (but far from spineless) Emmanuelle balance each other perfectly.

It’s also nice to read about a Paris before the war that destroyed it in the books, even though from here, you can already see that injustice and rot were already everywhere in the society; the war just made it impossible to ignore even for the powerful.

My rating: ★★★★¾

I also read the short story at the back of the UK edition of The House of Shattered Wings, The House, In Winter, and… please, if it’s a possibility for you and if you’re interested in reading this book, try to pick up this edition, it’s even better than the book itself. I’ve never been more glad to have the UK edition of something. (For once, the American ones aren’t the ones having the additional content.)

The best kind of short stories really are the ones that manage to make you feel a lot about a character you already know is dead in the novel. I’m in so much pain. And I want, really want more content about that one fallen angel.

Also, the atmosphere, the sense of dread, the level of details!! This is quality content. I’ve read so many things written by Aliette de Bodard this month and this is unambiguously one of the best ones.

My rating: ★★★★★

As usual, if you have short story recommendations, especially if queer, throw them at me!

Book review · Young adult

Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

38612739Pet is a story about how evil – any kind of evil – thrives in plain sight when people start refusing to look for it, to acknowledge that it can and does exist. It’s a story about how this refusal of any kind of discomfort, this hiding from the world’s truth, hurts and silences victims.

It follows Jam, a black trans girl with selective mutism who lives in Lucille, a town in a future version of America that would look like an utopia to us. Not only the people around Jam accept all of her as she is, Lucille as a whole doesn’t have “monsters” anymore: no police to fear, no hoarding billionaries or evil politicians or backstabbing bigots. Evil has been defeated, people say, but as Jam soon discovers, that’s never really the case.

This is a charming little book. It’s so short, but it has so much to say, with this world balanced between surreal and futuristic, in which creatures can come through paintings and monsters are still so familiar. It’s not contemporary, but it’s that kind of book that feels more real than reality, and one I would recommend to readers of all ages. I think that it’s technically a much-needed lower YA, as the main character is 15, but it’s accessible even to younger readers, and adults could get a lot out of it as well. From what Petsays about the nature of evil to what it says about what makes a monster, or an angel – not the appearance, not what they are, but what they do – there are a lot of important messages and reminders in this book.

I think it’s really interesting how, in an age range that is supposedly geared towards teenagers (so, from 13 to 19, and even then, people will tell you that it’s technically meant to be 14-17), characters that are younger than 16 are so uncommon in YA. I think this is one of the reasons this book felt so unlike every YA novel I had ever read before – Jam is a 15-year-old girl who actually feels like one, and Pet talks about the typical difficulties of being a young teen in the world: Jam doesn’t know how to communicate with her parents anymore, she’s slowly realizing that the world is uglier than she has believed for all her life, and is terrified that people won’t listen to her just because of her age. I remember experiencing all of these things myself, and it’s sad that the YA age range usually avoids dealing with these topics to favor storylines that are more appealing to adults instead.

Pet also focuses a lot on family dynamics, both in Jam’s own family – Jam’s relationships with her parents, Bitter and Aloe, is really developed, which is also uncommon in YA – and in her friend Redemption’s, in which Jam has been told “hides a monster”. I loved the portrayal of Redemption’s family, it’s so uncommon to see extended families and polyamory representation (Redemption’s parents are a woman, a non-binary person, and a man, but aunts and uncles are almost like parents to him too) in books, but even families that look perfect can have their ugly sides. And this is still a story with a happy ending, the best possible ending given the circumstances. Just because it has an important message, it doesn’t mean it has to be constantly painful.

And then there’s the relationship between Jam and Pet, the creature that came through Jam’s mother’s paining. I loved what this book did with Pet, especially what Pet meant to Jam – their complicated friendship, their disagreements abou how to pursue justice, and how Pet taught Jam to be brave and that sometimes discomfort is a positive thing.

I hope Pet ends up reaching a lot of people; I think most could get something useful from this.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · historical fiction

Reviews: Mooncakes + A Little Light Mischief

Today, I’m reviewing two light, fun and very gay reads: the graphic novel Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu, and the historical novella A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian.

36310834Mooncakes is a paranormal graphic novel following two Chinese-American childhood best friends, Tam Lang, a genderqueer werewolf, and Nova Huang, a hard-of-hearing queer witch, as they reconnect, fall in love, and solve a mystery involving a demon.

It’s a cute and fun read, if really predictable; I especially appreciated how this wasn’t only a story about a romance, but also about the importance of a supportive family, blood or found. Another thing I really liked were the small references to YA books, especially Asian-American YA books – I recognized The Astonishing Color of After, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, Warcross and The Girl King, but there could have been others. It’s so refreshing to see references to things I have actually read and that aren’t necessary to understand the dialogue (which is my problem with many dialogues in contemporary American novels).

The art style wasn’t my favorite – it’s not the graphic novel, it’s me – but I really liked the color scheme and the atmosphere; I think it’s the perfect light fall read.

My rating: ★★★★

43386064-1A Little Light Mischief is an f/f historical romance novella set in London in 1818. It follows two women as they fall in love and get revenge against the man who wronged one of them.

It is part of a series, but I can tell you that you don’t need to have read the previous books to understand it – I haven’t, I don’t know what they’re about, and I had no problems with understanding the context. What I struggled more with was the writing style: English is my second language, and I often struggle with books that sometimes go out of their way to sound “older”. It is an added wall, when this already isn’t my language to begin with, so I connected with the story less.
I’ve recently read another historical romance set around the same time that didn’t make me feel this way while not sounding “modern” either, so this is something I noticed.

Apart from that, I loved A Little Light Mischief. It’s exactly what the title and the cover promise it is: a fun, romantic read about two women in love who also get into some mischief, and I love this small, recent trend of f/f historical romance that comment on misogyny and a little also on homophobia while not being about queer pain at all. It’s escapism, as it should be.

Also, I will always think that novellas are the best format for romance, at least for me. A Little Light Mischief is long enough to develop the romance but too short to need relationship drama or much more conflict, and there’s still space for a sex scene, which is the perfect combination. All the fun without any of the boredom, drawn-out miscommunication or pacing problems.

My rating: ★★★★


T5W: Books Featuring Paranormal Creatures

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is Favorite Books Featuring [Paranormal Creature of Your Choice].

This is a repeat topic from last year, but as it’s a good one AND interchangeable so it can be different each year, it’s back again.

I realized while writing this that I didn’t have enough books for any paranormal creature that I actually liked, so I’m going to give a few recommendations for five different paranormal creatures.


If you’re tired of the angel = good, demon = bad dichotomy: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor was the first book about angels I’ve ever read that actually approached angels and demons in a morally gray way. I had read books about angels I had liked before – for example, the Shadowhunter Chronicles – but I was tired of how the demons were never really characters, they were just Evil, and they needed to be slaughtered. In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, there are good and bad people on both sides, and that was really refreshing. Also, why would you ever want to miss Laini Taylor’s writing?

If you like diverse political fantasy and don’t care about demons: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard is one of the best fantasy series I’ve started this year. Books about angels are often very white, very straight and have religious undertones I don’t like, but not this series. This is a political fantasy story set in a very atmospheric version of post-apocalyptic Paris, and the main characters are either human, fallen angels, or Vietnamese shapeshifting dragons (mainly in the second book). Also, as of the second book, there are three queer couples! (Two of them f/f, one m/m).


If you like steampunk and vengeful heroines: The Falconer by Elizabeth May follows a girl who is the beautiful daughter of a Marquess by day and a vengeful fae hunter by night. I loved her just as much as I liked the worldbuilding – this book is set in Edimburgh in 1844, and the way it blends steampunk technology (flying machines!) with Scottish folklore was wonderful.

If you want a non-toxic, fun fae romance: An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson is a book I read almost a year ago and really liked. My problem with fae books is that the romance is often toxic, but not here. Also, this is a fae book about how great it is to be human, instead of the usual, trite “fae are so much better than humans in every way, everyone wants to be fae” trope.

If you find all faeries far too tame and too “human”: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng wins the award for “most twisted, most terrifying portrayal of fae” I’ve ever read. If you think the fae you usually find in fantasy are boring and just basically magical humans, read this. I’m sure you won’t forget it.


If you want non-western vampires: Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a paranormal noir set in Mexico City, and one of the main characters is a bisexual Nahua vampire (tlāhuihpochtli) who gets into a relationship with a human at some point. It was interesting to see a story about a queer, non-western vampire that wasn’t about the romance and in which the usual romantic dynamic (human girl/older male vampire) was reversed.

If you like a weird romance and messy, reckless characters because that way it’s more fun: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. This book was… something. It was one of my favorite books before I started reviewing, and to this day it’s my favorite Holly Black book. It’s an urban fantasy story with a very weird but adorable vampire romance and the most messy cast ever. It’s about the romanticization of death in pop culture, and it’s the best vampire story I’ve ever read.

Dead Stuff, Still Moving

Becauze “zombies” sounds so restrictive.

If you like diverse creepy books, witches, and dead people walking: Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova is probably the closest I’ve read to a zombie book, and it’s also one of my favorite YA fantasy books of 2018. This story follows a family of brujas (latinx witches) who live in New York – and the city is being swarmed by casimuertos, who really should be dead but are still walking. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric creepy story about grief and the intensity of teenage love.

If you like macabre nonsense and Russian folklore: Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter is one of the weirdest YA books I know and I love it so much. It doesn’t make sense if you take it literally, but if you don’t? It’s great. This modern, surrealist retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful set in Brooklyn features chain stores walking around on chicken legs, disembodied hands that are still moving, girls turning into swans and wise but creepy talking dolls. Also: Night sees you, reader.

If you like reading about necromancy: For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig follows a girl who lives in a fantastical country whose political situation is inspired by Southeast Asia during French colonization. She is a necromancer, so she’s able to see spirits and make them do what she wants – and, at the beginning of the story, she’s using them to make shadow plays with stringless puppets, which is probably the most original application of necromancy I’ve ever seen in a book. I loved the magic system here and I loved the main character, a bipolar girl who is trying to find a cure for her illness just as much as she’s trying to hide her powers.


If you want a Beauty and the Beast retelling: In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard is an f/f retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a Vietnamese cast, and the “beast” of the story, Vu Côn, is a shapeshifting dragon. The romance is adorable, and the worldbuilding is great too – if you like reading about magical, dangerous palaces like the ones in Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge and The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, you need to read it.

If you like wintry, atmospheric books: Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett is a YA fantasy book in which there are many magical creatures, including witches and really small dragons that are basically the main characters’ lamps. I thought this idea was really cute. Also, winter is approaching and this is the perfect book to read while it’s snowing outside.

Have you read any of these? What is your favorite paranormal creature?

Book review · Young adult

Review: The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé

32941909The Dark Beneath the Ice is an addicting f/f horror book, and so much more.
I loved it, I can already tell it will be in my list of favorites of 2018, and yet it did not scare me. Reviews, just like what scares a person, are heavily subjective, but it’s especially true for this one – this is an objectively scary book, for YA standards.
This book wasn’t scary to me because my reaction to almost everything the main character did or thought was, basically, “been there, done that”. And that’s also the main reason I loved it.

I tend to hate the “is she insane or is she magic” trope, I find it exploitative, it happens in stories that use the “scary” aspects of mental illnesses for shock value, but with a main character who – usually – turns out to not be mentally ill after all.

This book, however, didn’t feel like that. The Dark Beneath the Ice is a story about mental illness through paranormal lens, not a paranormal story that uses illnesses as a plot device.
Marianne is probably the character I’ve related to the most since I started reading. It’s like someone was looking at my experiences as a mentally ill teenage girl, and writing them using the paranormal as a metaphor. It was almost too much, and I definitely cried a few times. No, I’ve never been haunted, but the way this haunting manifested itself – it was like reading a paranormal version of my panic attacks.
I’ve read many books with main characters with anxiety disorders, and yet no book ever went there.
Panic attacks in YA books are always the same: the main character is scared, struggles to breathe, is shaking, and they may feel like they’re going to throw up. There’s nothing wrong with this, but there are so many other ways panic attacks can look, and The Dark Beneath the Ice is the first book I’ve read that seems to recognize this.

There are people who claw at their own skin without realizing it until the episodes goes away, there are people who start breaking things, there are people who blurt out things they don’t remember afterwards, who start shouting. A panic attack may also look like a person frozen, unable to move, staring ahead while screaming inside – and many of these aspects are mentioned or happen in this book; some of Marianne’s “paranormal episodes” manifested like this.
Also: this is the only book that seems to get the feeling of powerlessness that follows that kind of attack, which I haven’t seen in any other book with anxiety representation. The characters have panic attacks, which are horrible, and they’re fine afterwards. What about the crushing feeling that you did it again and can’t control yourself, and maybe you did it in public, and people noticed it – when appearing ordinary is your main strategy for survival? It’s in this book, and I never saw it anywhere else.

And yes, I do consider this representation, because the horror is tied to Marianne’s mental illnesses, but Marianne is ill before and after the paranormal episodes, and also has other symptoms, like spirals of thoughts she can’t escape, or being so critical of herself she can’t see anything but the faults, the flaws, so much that it turns into self-hate. Or the idea that no one ever wants to hear her talk, that no one wants to remember she exists, that she should isolate herself and disappear and everyone will be better if she does that.
[I’m surprised I had never seen this aspect in books about mental illness with female main characters. I suppose it’s not uncommon seeing how little women and their opinions are valued.]

Another reason I really liked this representation of MIs is that, while we didn’t go through the same things, Marianne’s unhealthy coping mechanisms reminded me of many things I have done. Trying to achieve invisibility to avoid conflict – I’ve been there. The “you can’t harass a ghost” quote made me feel a lot of things. That’s also why I knew the ending from the start, I saw it coming, and I don’t care. I have done this, what happens is in no way a mystery to me, paranormal metaphors or not.

A spoiler-y paragraph about the themes:

I think that at its heart this book is about how hiding (self-drowning), as a coping mechanism, turns you into your own worst enemy. And that’s something I can definitely relate to. You can’t be bullied if you’re invisible, but you internalize that everything will be better that way. And you also become a perfectionist, because flaws make you stand out and you can’t stand out, it’s survival. (Doing things well doesn’t make you stand out, if that’s what people always expected from you).
Hiding may work for a short time but it hurts in the long run. I still have to remind myself every day that I have the right to exist in a physical space. The fact that this book ends with Marianne confronting someone instead of avoiding her problems means a lot to me, and I don’t think this book could have ended in a better way.

I also loved the nuanced portrayals of family, therapy and medication. Marianne’s parents, before the divorce, weren’t exactly unsupportive – they were supportive until she wanted to quit something, which I understand more than I’d like to. And this is the first paranormal book involving mental illnesses I’ve seen that completely avoids the “therapists and psychiatrists are evil” trope. The main character even takes medication (!) and has mixed experiences with it (it helps in some ways, with some side effects).

Also, it’s queer horror! With a f/f romance, and a main character who is very much into girls but doesn’t label herself! (and it’s not the classic “I don’t want to use the word bisexual”, it’s “I don’t know which label is right for me and it’s not important to me right now”, which. Can we stop acting like that’s somehow lesser or incomplete representation?). I also really liked the love interest: Rhiannon is a girl who has another way to shield herself from the outside – she basically built a persona – because high school is cruel, especially to marginalized girls.
[Marhiannon is the worst ship name ever though]

Anyway this book is one of my new favorites ever and I have highlighted and annotated so many parts of it I could go on and on about what I loved about it, but I think this is enough. I don’t know if this book will work as well for people who haven’t haven’t had experiences similar to mine; maybe they’ll find this annoying or boring or too weird – but all of this is also true of living with a mental illness. It’s annoying and scary, very ordinary and weird at the same time. It’s you, but it’s not, or maybe it is – and, like Marianne, you don’t always know whether to trust yourself.

My rating: ★★★★★